Species: Cyphoma gibbosum
Please note: no flamingos were harmed in the making of this creature.
Honestly, I don’t know how they got they got their common name. These mollusks look nothing like flamingo tongues, and I should know because I’ve been staring at flamingo pictures for the past several minutes!
Cyphoma gibbosum are interesting mollusks to find on a reef. They have bright orange spots that are outlined in black on a creamy background, but the mollusks aren’t terribly big, averaging about 1‒1.5 inches long. When they’re young, they don’t have many rectangular spots, but as they get older, the spots get smaller and more numerous.
Flamingo tongues can be found on coral reefs in the Western Atlantic, from North Carolina to Brazil, in the Gulf of Mexico, and in the Caribbean Sea. They make their homes on gorgonian corals (soft corals), which is the only thing they consume—eating the soft tissue of the coral they sit on. Flamingo tongues use the chemicals from their prey in their own natural defense against predators by storing the chemicals in their soft tissue, the mantle, making them taste disgusting to most fish. Their predators include pufferfish, hogfish, and the Caribbean spiny lobster.
For those who don’t know—which until recently included myself—the bright spots that you see aren’t part of their shell. In fact, their shell is a very basic-looking cream color, and the spots that you’ll see when diving and snorkeling at a reef are actually the fleshy bits that hide the shell, called the mantle. When frightened, a C. gibbosum will retract into its creamy shell, pulling its colorful patterned mantle inside.
Unfortunately, the populations of C. gibbosum have decreased rapidly in recent years due to the increase activity of humans. Specifically, divers and snorkelers see these cool guys on the reef and think that the spots are part of their shell, so they decide to bring them back as a neat souvenir. When the creature dies, all that’s left is a simple shell sans the color and the spots.
Flamingo tongue shells have also boomed in popularity in the coastal jewelry business, so people will collect a lot of them to make their jewelry. As far as I’m aware, there is no data that can determine if the species is threatened or endangered and there are no regulations in place to protect them. However, that still shouldn’t stop us from being more aware of the situation and doing what we can to help, for instance know where the shells on your jewelry come from before you buy it.
I was lucky enough to spot a few of these guys while diving in Jamaica. I saw them the most when we went to a gorgonian-heavy reef, naturally, and the C. gibbosum were one of the cooler things to spot while swimming by. They’re small and can be easy to miss, but whenever I found one, I was mesmerized by it for a few beats before moving on. I think the coolest thing about them is their ability to be unaffected by the toxins the soft coral produce to deter predators, and they can use it to make themselves distasteful too.
Ocean: The Definitive Visual Guide made by the American Museum of Natural History
Reef Creatures Identification: Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas 3rd Ed. By Paul Humann, Ned DeLoach, and Les Wilk